Red Meat Allergies Brought on by Tick Bites
Alpha-gal is a carbohydrate found in the cells of mammals that humans commonly eat, such as cows, pigs and sheep. Ticks also contain the alpha-gal molecules. When a tick, particularly the Lone Star tick, bites a human, our bodies develop an immune response to these molecules creating antibodies. These antibodies stay in our system and try to fight off the alpha-gal molecules the next time they are encountered. This may happen when a person eats red meats, gelatins or dairy products. Often this is referred to as the red meat allergy, or alpha-gal syndrome.
The Lone Star tick is found in the southeastern part of the U.S., which makes the syndrome a higher risk in our area. It is best to try to prevent getting bit by a tick. When outdoors, especially in wooded areas; make sure your skin and hair are covered by clothing, use insect repellent, check for ticks when coming inside and shower as soon as possible.
If bitten, the most common allergic reactions are hives, headaches, sneezing, runny nose, nausea and diarrhea, but symptoms can vary from person to person. More severe symptoms of alpha-gal or other allergic reactions may include swelling of the lips, face, tongue, throat or other body parts, asthma and anaphylaxis.
Unlike more common food allergies that have an instant reaction, symptoms from alpha-gal syndrome can be delayed for a few hours after exposure, making it harder to link to previous red meat consumption. Studies show that further exposure to tick bites increase the severity of the allergic reaction.
If you suspect your child may be having an allergic reaction to red meat or other foods or environmental causes our office will be happy to schedule allergy testing for you today. We can test for the antibodies in the blood to find out if your child has alpha-gal.
An over-the-counter antihistamine, such as Benadryl® can be used if allergic reactions are mild. More serious reactions may require an epinephrine (Epi-Pen®) injection and/or a trip to the Emergency Room.
–Mary Ellen McNeal, BSN, RN